Serious side of fascinating science

Dinosaur display at LA Natural History Museum. Shutterstock

In the wake of the devastating global financial crisis, Los Angeles County’s Natural History Museum has undergone something of a boom: attendances have doubled, shop sales have risen by 84 per cent and, rather than being laid off, staff have received pay rises.

It has been “a dinosaur-led economic recovery”, according to John Long, newly-appointed Strategic Professor of Palaeontology at Flinders University and former Vice President of research and collections at the LA museum.

“We spent something like $40 million developing two major galleries while I was there – one on mammal evolution and one on dinosaurs,” Professor Long said.

He pinpoints the museum’s economic success to the opening of those new galleries and the “heavy investment in palaeontology”, underscoring what he says is the public’s fascination with their past and their “deep distant ancestry”.

“People are deeply curious. They want to know about what dinosaurs lived in their backyard 100 million years ago, and palaeontology attracts a huge share of media attention because people are fascinated by it,” he said, adding that there are important scientific, social and even industrial applications of palaeontology that are often overlooked.

“When we study the Earth today, we look at it from outside as a three-dimensional arrangement of geography, plants and animals that creates environments; but it means nothing with that fourth dimension of deep time that shows how it has evolved and how environments and conditions fluctuate and change,” he said.

“Understanding the fossil record is our only guide to understanding the detailed biotic changes for the continents.”

A prolific author, Professor Long said that the need for science communication was self-evident.

His 27 books cover a wide range of subjects and include Frozen in Time: Prehistoric Life in Antarctica, The Rise of Fishes: 500 Million Years of Evolution and the Big Picture series of highly-successful children’s books focusing on human civilisation, the environment and the world of “big ideas”.

“It’s inherent that what we do is often seen to be eclectic and esoteric to members of the public but they’re inherently fascinated by the breakthroughs and discoveries that are reported in the newspapers,” he said.

“I think it’s important that the public have an informed basis for their political decisions, especially in the biggest ‘debates’ of our time about climate change – which isn’t a debate, the science is settled and clear. But to many people out in the community, it’s portrayed as a debate.”

Climate change, he said, was only the second biggest issue facing us today.

“The biggest is irrationalism, people who just don’t believe in the logical answers that are put in front of them.

“With good education and by increasing the level of trust in science, I think the community will make better decisions for our future.”

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